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Bustling heart of Bangladesh

Emergency or no emergency, people are not afraid to speak out in Bangladesh’s shrill politics. Shows that long-term, the democratic tradition will prevail, writes Amit Baruah.

india Updated: Nov 16, 2007 22:20 IST
Amit Baruah

Here’s the setting. A Filipino band belting out You are my Sonia in a Dhaka hotel, with young Bangladeshi girls swaying to the beat. It’s close to midnight, but the party is rocking. We, a group of Indians and Pakistanis, are sitting in the open, just outside the hotel bar, sipping our chilled beer and vodka tonics. We’re, like, almost on the road, hidden partially by a tall hedge. Desperately trying to get away from the noise. Wanting to have a conversation, but not really succeeding. And guess who is having a dekko at us? Curious, bemused security personnel, who are crawling all over the hotel (and outside), because some big security chiefs from Bangladesh were talking to some big security chiefs from India.

Fact file

Some GK now. Like all good Islamic nations, alcohol is banned in Bangladesh. But like all good Islamic nations, alcohol is available in Dhaka. (Please forgive me if that sounds politically incorrect). Not having had the good fortune of travelling to such grand-sounding places like Cox's Bazar, I can’t say anything about the booze scene outside Dhaka.

Whether it’s your friendly neighbourhood hotel or the tiny restaurant outside, alcohol, I am happy to announce to all tipplers and topplers, is freely available. In my personal human development index, and how-democratic-a-nation-you-are ratings, the freedom to buy alcohol and drink it figures very high in country rankings. Indonesia, as the largest country with a Muslim population tops my rankings but, hey hold on, Bangladesh, even under a state of emergency, is much, much better than, say, Saudi Arabia or Iran.

All for Dhaka

Enough about booze. Time to state my biases. I love Dhaka. I love the bustle, the crowds, the traffic, the people, the lovely ladies wearing lovely sarees and Arong. For those who don’t know, Arong is the one-stop shop for great clothes, including kurtas, curios and all things you want to pick up and buy.

As one colleague travelling with me noted, the quieter parts of Dhaka looked like Bangalore. Given that I’ve been to Bangalore for a few hours just once in my life, I just have to take her at her word. Autos of the Bajaj variety, often painted, taxis, buses, rickshaws and trucks. They are all there in abundance. And, of course, every kind of car produced by every automobile maker in the world. My trusted source, Google, informed me that Bangladesh, unlike India, does allow the import of reconditioned cars. (It’s a real pity that homosapiens other than journos can access Google).

By the way, I didn’t really make myself very popular with the Bangladeshis I met by talking about the hustle and bustle. Especially, those who had spent a couple of hours in traffic jams on the day we met. I’ve been to Dhaka three times. Once, I was trying to chase SAARC heads of government, an impossible task in these days of security, another time it was the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan; now, most recently, to attend a conference. During the SAARC summit, I saw close to nothing. Not even people. The many millions, who people Dhaka were kept off the streets: not a mean achievement for any government. But even then, we managed to feast on eelish machch (hope I’ve got the spelling right, otherwise the Bongs in my office might kill me) at a wayside eatery, close to a bus stand.

Sister cities

Many things in Dhaka are like Delhi. No, I haven’t yet gotten over that irritating Indian habit of trying to find things about India in the neighbourhood or in distant lands. Take the airport immigration at Zia international airport. Just like Indira Gandhi International Airport. Slow as hell. I must admit it was one particular counter, though. Marked for SAARC passports. It was so slow that our conference hosts had to come rushing in to check why all of us hadn’t been able to make it through immigration despite having been in queue for more than an hour.

Our taxi driver (think how much poorer journos would have been if they didn’t use cabs) spoke enough English and me a smattering of Bengali to strike up sufficient conversation on the way to the hotel.

High decibel

The political reporter in me wanted to know about what people thought about the emergency, but the cabbie’s agenda was a little different. He went on about how popular Indian soaps were among female members of his family. I got a good dose of political views at a mid-conference dinner, where the cream of Dhaka’s civil society was present.

Emergency or no emergency, people are not afraid to speak out in Bangladesh’s shrill politics. Shows that long-term, the democratic tradition will prevail. En route to the dinner, our van banged into a fancy car. Out jumped a man, demanding our hapless driver’s licence. Long arguments ensued in Bengali, the flow of traffic slowed. The other party was saying something like tu mere baap ko nahin jaanta. I felt at home; like we deal with issues in Jatland.

Market safari

I didn’t go saree shopping (family HQ in Gurgaon thinks wearing sarees is a pain) to Basundhara mall, neither did I go to sample the local flavours of New Market. But colleagues told me I missed out. Probably. Left hugely early for the airport to ensure I was able to slice through the traffic.

On the way, stopped at Bookworm, an old style bookshop, and picked up two collections of Tagore. Finished one, reading the other: trying to catch up on what has eluded me. Last GK lesson: Tagore is the author of Bangladesh’s national anthem. So, picking up Tagore from Dhaka is the proper thing to do.